What do you think about when you think of the term “boundaries”? Do you think of a natural, physical boundary, such as the edge of a lake, a mountain range, the last point of land before the sea? Do you you think of a physical, man-made boundary, such as a fence or a wall, or a geographical boundary?
In a relationship, when you are wanting to be close and intimate with your partner, to share things together, and develop a close, secure bond, where do boundaries fit in? This seems like a contradiction to a lot of couples, who ask:-
“How can we be close and still maintain boundaries?”
“Why would we want to?”
To answer these questions, let’s think about the important role boundaries play.
Animals mark their own territories to protect them and their tribe from other animals who might threaten their family group. Plants and trees form protective layers – such as cactuses – to prevent themselves from being eaten. As early humans we sheltered from the elements in caves and man-made structures to protect us from the elements. (Now we just call them houses!).
In Nature, we need boundaries for survival. They create a feeling of safety and protection.
To ensure survival, our brains – the oldest, reptilian parts – are hard-wired to protect those boundaries. Any breach of those boundaries results in a “fight or flight” adrenaline response, enabling us to either fiercely protect those boundaries or move to a place of safety.
Fortunately, in this day and age, most of us in the West are lucky enough to not have to worry about day-to-day survival. But that doesn’t stop those old parts of the brain from being activated when we feel our boundaries are being threatened. What happens to you internally when someone on the tube stands a bit too close to you, or when someone parks in your space? Your heart starts racing, you might become angry or irritated. You start thinking about claiming your space back by either complaining (fight), or moving away (flight). Although this might seem minor or mild in comparision to a real life-and-death threat, the brain doesn’t know the difference between a perceived threat and an actual threat.
But boundaries are not just physical. They are emotional too.
I talk a lot about how in relationships, both partners will have their own unique view of themselves, other people, the world, based on their own experiences. I wrote about this in a blog post – Relationship Misunderstandings and Why They Happen. I compare these viewpoints to “lenses”, with each of us having a different coloured lens. Sometimes we see the same colour, and sometimes we don’t. When we don’t, this can lead to mis-interpretations and mis-understandings. The mistake we often make in conflict is in trying to convince each other that our lens is the correct one, and or partner’s lens is incorrect. And we can feel as though our boundaries are being breached when our partner tells us that our view is wrong, or that our feelings aren’t valid.
The truth is, in a relationship, both of your experiences and feelings are valid, and it is not for your partner to say they are not. Even if the feelings are irrational. In fact, feelings are often irrational. They are often separate from fact or reason. Being told that you shouldn’t feel a certain way doesn’t make the feeling go away.
And of course there are physical boundaries in relationships that are also important. When you are in a conflict situation, are feeling triggered, and things are escalating into an argument, the fight or flight response gets triggered in both of you. This sometimes means that one partner shuts down or walks away into another room and withdraws, and the other partner pursues, unable to contain what they want to say. (I recently wrote a post all about why your partner withdraws – read it HERE). This can cause the partner who withdraws to withdraw even more, which can lead to the pursuing partner becoming angrier or more anxious.
The only way to break this cycle is for both partners to take some time out and calm down. Because in the fight or flight mode, neither of you can think clearly. This means you end up saying things you might regret. You cannot communicate in a respectful, compassionate way when you are both so emotionally aroused. You are operating from your reptilian brains – not the rational brain.
What is important is that you can both recognise that you are getting triggered before it gets too contentious, and that you both agree that in this situation, if one partner starts to feel the need for some time out, that this is respected. This doesn’t mean that you should always walk away from conflict and leave things unresolved. It means that you should come back to the issue later when you are both feeling calmer. And it is important that this is communicated clearly.
In Nature, boundaries are about survival and protection. In relationships, boundaries are also about respect and individualism.
And yes, I believe it is entirely possible and actually desirable to have a secure, loving bond with your partner whilst maintaining your individuality.
So if you struggle to maintain boundaries in your relationship when you are in conflict, and are unsure how to communicate this with your partner, click HERE to download my FREE Communication Guide for Couples.
Until then, remember that your relationship will thrive if you maintain and tend to it! X
P.S: COMING SOON: For those of you who feel you would benefit from more in-depth expert guidance, to learn the exact tools and techniques needed for resolving conflict in an effective and loving way, I am soon to release my BRAND NEW Compassionate Conflict for Couples course. This is a 4 week programme designed to guide you and your partner through conflict in a calm, effective and loving way, so that you can go from hurt, frustration and blame, to FINALLY resolving conflict compassionately, positively, and feeling heard – without feeling like you have both lost a battle. I will be posting more information soon but in the meantime, please don’t hesitate to get in touch for more information. And the sooner the better because there is a SPECIAL BONUS for the first 10 people to sign up for the course! To make sure you don’t miss out, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org, or send me a PM on Facebook.